Tom Henschel wasn’t going to let a hospital gown and an IV keep him from getting to the Super Bowl.
Instead, he yanked the needle from his arm and kept his Super Bowl streak alive.
On Feb. 4, the lifelong Steelers fan will be among an exclusive group who will chalk up 52 Super Bowl games — every Super Bowl since it began in 1967. These are the folks who sometimes note life’s milestones not by the year on the calendar but by a Super Bowl Roman numeral, all while reeling off scores and game-changing plays etched in their memories that they admit are becoming more clouded with age. “I’ll be there until they put me in the box,” said the 76-year-old Henschel, who lives north of Pittsburgh.
He’ll join Don Crisman of Kennebunk, Maine, and Gregory Eaton of Lansing, Mich., for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. For each of them, it’s one more notch in a streak that took them from the first Super Bowl, where the most expensive ticket was 12 bucks and the halftime show was a college band, to a game that has become an international extravaganza. Along the way, they promised themselves they would always be in the stadium on game day.
Eaton went to the inaugural Super Bowl by himself when Herb Adderley, a former Michigan State University player who joined the Packers in 1961, gave him a ticket. Eaton, who is African-American, knew Adderley and other black players like Bubba Smith and Clinton Jones from Michigan State. Eaton’s family often hosted the athletes.
For his second Super Bowl, Eaton went to Miami with a group of local businessmen who were white. When they got to the hotel, Eaton was turned away. “I got the door slammed in my face because I just happened to be colored,” he said. “Times have changed.”
Over the years, Eaton celebrated the first black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl and the hiring of the first African-American football coaches. “I just happened to be an Afro-American and old enough to come up in a time to see these changes,” he said. “I never thought I would get to see a black quarterback. I never thought I would get to vote for a black president.”
For Henschel, who started going to the big games while working in a bar where football players hung out and gave him tickets, the annual rite nearly ended on the morning of Super Bowl VI, when he landed in a New Orleans hospital.
“I couldn’t breathe,” he recalled. He was down in the middle of the street when an officer picked him up and took him to an emergency room, where he was hooked up to IVs and oxygen.
“They wheeled me up to a room and a Catholic nun came in and asked if there was anything she could get me. ‘No sister,’ I said. ‘But I have to get to the game today.’ ”
That’s not going to happen, she told him.
“As soon as she walked out, I pulled out the IVs, took off the oxygen and got the hell out of that hospital,” Henschel said. “I was feeling like a spring chicken after the IVs” and watched the Cowboys “beat the crap” out of the Dolphins.
Henschel discovered there were more die-hards like him as he stood in line to see the Johnny Carson show. “I heard these two guys say they’ve been to 17 [Super Bowls],” Henschel said. That’s when he met Don Crisman and Stan Whitaker.
Crisman was living in Littleton, Colo., in 1967 when he and four others headed to Los Angeles for the year-ending game — initially called the AFL-NFL World Championship.
“By Super Bowl II, we were down to four when one fellow was given an ultimatum by his wife: his annual hunting trip or the Super Bowl,” Crisman said. By Super Bowl III, the group of five was down to two.
“Stanley and I made a pact at Super Bowl 10 or 11 to never miss one,” Crisman said. The Never Miss a Super Bowl club was born; buttons were made.
He never thought this thing would get to 50, though, much less 52. It’s an expensive hobby that he doesn’t put a price tag on. “I don’t want to know the number, and I don’t want [my wife] to see it either,” he said, laughing but probably only half-joking.
As their tally of Super Bowl games rose, so did their celebrity status. The NFL eventually put them on its VIP list, sending them invoices for game tickets, ending years when they sometimes relied on scalpers. They appeared in commercials. Reporters wrote stories and their faces appeared in magazines, on TV and in newspapers.
“The local papers always have me on the front page,” Henschel said. When he walks in a bar in his hometown, someone always buys him a drink.
It’s two weeks of fame every year, Crisman said. “It’s like those groups who have one hit,” he said. “We pop up for a couple weeks and then we disappear.”
And then there were three
Crisman promised his wife he would end his streak after No. 50 — unless the Patriots made it into the Super Bowl.
“They got into 51,” he said. He was there. And before he even knew the Patriots’ fate this year, Crisman had his Super Bowl tickets in hand with plans to connect again with the remaining Never Miss A Super Bowl club members.
With members dying over the years, “it kind of takes the wind out of the sails. It’s just the three of us,” Henschel said.
The most recent loss was Larry Jacobson from San Francisco, who died in October.
“We were close,” Crisman said. “We traveled to each other’s homes. He was in San Francisco and I was in Maine. We couldn’t be more different in some ways. He was a California liberal; I’m a Northeast conservative. … Without Larry, it’s going to be tough.”
Eaton, 78, is the newest member of the club, meeting Crisman and Henschel for the first time last year in Houston. He never imagined he would pay $3,500 for a couple of Super Bowl tickets. “If my dad knew I paid that to watch football, he would spank me,” Eaton said, laughing. It’s a pricey weekend when you add another $1,000 for a hotel room and money for airfare and food, he said.
But as a bachelor, he doesn’t need to justify the costs to anyone, said Eaton, a die-hard Lions fan who hopes to live long enough to see Detroit get to the Super Bowl. He laughs again.
And he hasn’t had to atone for missing events like funerals or weddings that fell on his sacred Super Bowl weekend.
“I’ve missed some funerals but not for any close friends,” he said. “Everyone knows me and knows they need to plan a wedding around Super Bowl time because Gregory won’t be there. Any real close friend who died also would know they would either have to move the funeral or understand why I wouldn’t be there.”
Crisman reluctantly admits that the Super Bowl sometimes trumped events in his life. “But those are the kind of things you don’t want to talk about,” he said. “You don’t want to resurrect those bad feelings.”
Now at 81, he looks back over the years through a different lens. “I’m the first to admit that in the early years, getting to the Super Bowl was ranked higher in my priorities in life than it should have been. I think I have it in the right place right now. If something super important came along, I think I would do the right thing.”
But the pull of the Super Bowl game is strong — even after more than 52 years.
“When they start ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ I get a tingle,” Eaton said. The game, the hoopla, the crowd — it’s all so exciting, he said. “I get the chills. I really do.”